1847 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bryan Waller Procter

William Howitt, "Bryan Waller Procter" Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets (1847) 2:447-51.



As the most beautiful flowers are found in the most arid deserts, so, out of the dry study of law comes forth now and then the most genial and tender spirit of poetry. Such has been the case with Mr. Procter, or Barry Cornwall, for we delight in that old favourite "nom de guerre;" and although I have been able to obtain but little knowledge of his homes and haunts, still these volumes would be incomplete without some notice of a man whose writings hold so firm a place in the public heart.

About seven and twenty years ago, Mr. Procter, then a young man, just called to the bar, and in very delicate health, published his first volume of poetry. Byron, Shelley, Keats, Campbell, and Leigh Hunt, were then pouring out volume after volume; and Scott, who was crowned with the laurels of his metrical romances, was riveting the attention of the whole world by his earlier romances; whilst Crabbe, as if woke up out of his slumber of twenty-two years by this great constellation of genius, had just put forth his new work, the Tales of the Hall. It was not a moment when a poet of ordinary power had any chance of sustaining his existence; but the young aspirant stood among those gigantic men, as one who, if not equal to them in all points at that moment, was yet kindred with them; and, although the Sicilian story, Diego de Montilla, Mirandola, and the Flood of Thessaly, have rather become pleasant memories than the actualities of the present day, the poet has established a lasting reputation by his volume of English Songs, and other small Poems, — a volume, in which there are gems of as noble and perfect poetry as any in the language, and which abounds with the most healthy, manly sentiment, and the broadest sympathies with suffering and struggling humanity. It is now the fashion to sympathize with the people — and a noble fashion it is — the only fear being of this otherwise holy Christian sentiment becoming, in some minds, morbid, if not mawkish. In Barry Cornwall, it is as genuine as any other part of his nature; feigning and falsehood are as impossible to it, as darkness to the sun. He has the clearest understanding of moral truth, and a detestation of the cold sordid spirit of the world. According to his faith—

Song should spur the mind to duty,
Nerve the weak and stir the strong;
Every deed of truth and beauty
Should be crowned by starry song;

and like a true man, who proclaims no more than he himself practises, his song becomes a watchword in the cause of man. In confirmation of this let me select one little poem, A Lyric of London, which contains a deeper moral than most sermons.

WITHIN AND WITHOUT.
WITHOUT.
The winds are bitter; the skies are wild
From the roof comes plunging the drowning rain,
Without — in tatters, the world's poor child
Sobbeth aloud her grief, her pain!
No one heareth her, no one heedeth her:
But Hunger, her friend, with his bony hand
Grasps her throat, whispering huskily
"What dost thou in a Christian land?"

WITHIN.
The skies are wild, and the blast is cold,
Yet riot and luxury brawl within;
Slaves are waiting in crimson and gold,
Waiting the nod of a child of sin.
The fire is crackling, wine is bubbling
Up in each glass to its beaded brim:
The jesters are laughing, the parasites quaffing,
"Happiness," — "honour," — and all for him!

WITHOUT.
She who is slain in the winter weather,
Ah! she once had a village fame;
Listened to love on the moonlit heather;
Had gentleness, vanity, maiden shame:
Now her allies are the tempest howling;
Prodigal's curses; self-disdain;
Poverty, misery: Well, no matter;
There is an end unto every pain.

The harlot's fame was her doom to-day,
Disdain, despair; by to-morrow's light
The ragged boards and the pauper's pall;
And so she'll be given to dusky night!
Without a tear or a human sigh
She's gone, — poor life and its fever o'er!
So let her in calm oblivion lie;
While the world runs merry as heretofore!

WITHIN.
He who yon lordly feast enjoyeth,
He who doth rest on his couch of down,
He it was who threw the forsaken
Under the feet of the trampling town.
Liar — betrayer — false as cruel,
What is the doom for his dastard sin?
His peers, they scorn! — high dames, they shun him?
—Unbar yon palace, and gaze within!

There, — yet his deeds are all trumpet-sounded,
There upon silken seats recline
Maidens as fair as the summer morning,
Watching him rise from the sparkling wine.
Mothers all proffer their stainless daughters;
Men of high honour salute him "friend";
Skies! oh where are your cleansing waters!
World! oh where do thy wonders end?

Again, here is another poem, worthy to take its place beside Burns's A Man's a Man for a' that.

RIND AND FRUIT.
You may boast of jewels, coronets,—
Ermine, purple, all you can—
There is that within them nobler;—
Something that we call — a man!
Something all the rest surpassing
As the flower is to the sod;
As to man is high archangel;
As is to archangel — God!

Running o'er with tears and weakness;
Flaming like a mountain fire;
Racked by hate and hateful passions;
Tossed about by wild desire;
There is still within him mingled
With each fault that dims or mars,
Truth, and pity, virtue, courage,—
Thoughts that fly beyond the stars!

You, who prize the book's fair paper
Above its thoughts of joy and pain;
You, who love the cloud's bright vapour
More than its soul, — the blessing, rain;
Take the gems, the crowns, the ermine;
Use them nobly, if you can;
But give us — in rags or purple—
The true, warm, strong heart of man!

Mr. Procter was born and spent his youth at Finchley, in a house which we understand is now pulled down. He was educated for the bar. He was some years at school at Harrow, where he was the cotemporary of the present Duke of Devonshire, Lord Byron, and Sir Robert Peel. On leaving Harrow, it had been the intention of his father to send him to one of the universities; but from this he was deterred, in consequence of the son of some friend or acquaintance having run a wild and ruinous career at one of these seminaries of extravagance and dissipation. From Harrow he, therefore, went to Calne, in Wiltshire, where he remained for some time under the care of an excellent man of the name of Atherton, who lived it was said in the house which at one time had been the residence of Coleridge, and opposite to another called the "Doctor's house," because it had once been occupied by Dr. Priestley. Two miles from Calne was Bremhill, the rector of which place, William Lisle Bowles, was on friendly terms with young Procter.

With a head and heart much more fitted for the noble business of poetry than law, Mr. Procter devoted himself for twenty years to his profession, until a few years ago he was appointed one of the Government Commissioners of Lunacy, with a good income, but with less leisure than ever for his favourite studies. He has resided altogether in London, for some time, in Gray's-inn; and after his marriage, with the step-daughter of Mr. Basil Montague, in what was in those days a very pretty cottage and suitable poet's home, at No. 5, Grove-end-place, St. John's-wood; and latterly in Upper Harley-place, Cavendish-square; where we sincerely hope he may yet find leisure, if not to write some noble drama, for which we consider him eminently qualified, at least to enrich the lyrical poetry of his country with fresh lays that will add honour to his reputation, at the same time that they assist struggling humanity in its great contest with the cruelty and selfishness of the world.

There is a healthy, active vigour about all the latter writings of Barry Cornwall, that show that he has never yet fairly and fully developed his whole power. His reputation is of the first class, but every one feels, in reading one of his lyrics, that he would not surprise us now to come forth with some high and stirring drama of real life, that would stamp him as a true tragic poet. The elements of this lie everywhere in his poems. There is a clear and decided dramatic tact and cast of thought. Pathos and indignation against wrong live equally and vividly in him. His thoughts and feelings are put forth with a genuineness and a perspicuous life, that tell at once on the reader, making him feel how real and how earnest is his spirit. Spite of the long and continuous labours of his daily life, we shall still trust to some future outburst of his powers and impulses in a fitting form. In the mean time, the prompt and quick spirit of his lyrics doing great service to the cause of progress far and wide.